Sunday, January 22, 2012

Thomas Saulsby Wright

Twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays at 11.30am, the museum runs a tour of the Norfolk Island Cemetery called “For Whom the Bells Tolls...” This is the only dedicated cemetery tour on offer on the island and over the course of an hour and a half we are able to really explore the amazing stories of the people who have lived and died on this island.

The grizzly stories of punishment, riot and execution in the Second Settlement are aplenty and are marked by the graves of men who died at very young ages. However there is one headstone from that period that stands out because of the old age of the person and it reveals a very unusual story. Thomas Saulsby Wright, a convict, died on the 7th February 1843 at 105 years old. When we learn that he was convicted of forgery we might question his age, but it is correct and he was 105 when he passed away!

Wright, alias ‘Tommy the Banker’ (he had worked for years as a banker), was originally sentenced to death for forgery in 1799 then aged in his sixties, but this was commuted to a life sentence and he was transported to Sydney where he was eventually pardoned. However aged 102 he was again caught with forged bank notes – and was transported to Norfolk Island with a sentence of 14 years imprisonment!

The Australian newspaper of 9th November 1839 tells the story of his trial and is recorded by Frank Clune in his book “The Norfolk Island Story”. The report includes that the court heard that Tommy the Banker pleaded not guilty, even though “A search warrant was issued, and the constable found several notes on Wright’s person, and in his house one hundred and ninety-one 10 pound notes, two hundred and fifty 5 pound notes, three hundred and seventy-six 2 pound notes, eighty-seven 1 pound notes and one hundred and ninety-five 20 pound notes, amounting in all to 8,000 pounds”. Plates were also found for a ‘Parramatta Banking’ company, a ‘Parramatta Trading company’ and another company “termed a ‘Defiance Company’, which he presumed had been jocularly so-called, because it was intended to set the law at defiance by fraudulent dealing”. Wright’s notes were from the Austilin Bank (perhaps he meant A-stealing!). The Attorney-General admitted that the plates were so well executed that any one would be likely to be deceived by their close resemblance to the notes of the Bank of Australia.

The judge asked Wright what he was doing with the notes and the Australian reports: “The prisoner…said that he had been sixty-two years a banker; he had undertaken to establish a bank for a company at Parramatta, but that he got connected with a party of swindlers, who robbed him. He was able to take up all his own notes signed by himself…and in fine that he had as good a right to establish a bank as any other gentleman…’Laughter in Court’, reported the Australian!

However Thomas Saulsby is probably still chucking in his grave as one of his forged bank notes appeared at an Australian auction house in late 2009. The auctioneer was originally very excited – perhaps this was the earliest Australian bank note ever found! However it was a one pound note, issued by the Austilin Bank and signed by Thomas Saulsby himself. After checking out the details of his time on Norfolk Island with Tom Lloyd, the auction house went on to sell the note for $30,000! The only thing he may be unhappy about is that 'Saulsby' was incorrectly spelt on his headstone as 'Saulsbury'.

There are many more amazing stories revealed during the Cemetery tour which runs from 11.30am to 1.00pm every Tuesday and Friday. The cost is $20 or reduced to $15 if a Museum Pass has also been purchased.


  1. Tommy the Banker is probably still chuckling in his grave about his real age too! I'm not convinced we have any idea. When I did a quick search of the NSW State Records, I found that he was supposedly 26 when he arrived in NSW in 1801 on the Canada (convicted York 1799 of forgery & sentenced to Life), but by the 1828 Census he is supposedly aged 92!

    There only seems to have been one Thomas Wright on Canada (1). Despite many mentions in the news over the years (none good) he somehow got a Conditional Pardon in 1816 and was on a list of persons to whom convict mechanics have been assigned (1822-23) .. and also a list for those who had neglected to pay for the convict mechanics (1823).

  2. His name not the only mis-spelling on his hedstone! He'd probably not care but his so-called birthplace is spelt wrongly too! There's only one Frodingham (not Frodringham) in Yorkshire, now just a disappeared suburb of Scunthorpe!